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Handicap Plus Technology Equals Farming Success

Friday, February 1, 2008
filed under: Planting Systems

In the blink of an eye, my life and my future were turned upside down,” reflects 38-year-old Steve Compton of Scott City, Kan. “An automobile accident in February 1988 of my senior year in high school left me a quadriplegic. I have some use of my arms and can turn my head; but any idea of driving a tractor or combine is long gone.”

Compton does have limited use of his arms. With a brace on his wrist, he can hold a pencil and tag the numbers on his well-used calculator and telephone.

He doesn’t dwell on his ‘handicap’ however. “I prefer to call it ‘physically inconvenienced,’ ” he says. Instead, Compton has chosen to use his mental assets and communications skills. The result is that Compton and Circle C Farms is one of the most aggressive and successful young farmers in western Kansas.

Compton enrolled at Kansas State University in the fall of 1989. He graduated from KSU in a B.S. in agribusiness in 1993. “Being a farmer was all I ever wanted to be,” Compton states. A KSU ag economics professor, Barry Finchbaugh, was instrumental in encouraging him to continue his education, assuring Compton that he would find his niche if he stayed the course.

The transition from college graduate to today has been both busy and exciting.

He returned to Scott City following college graduation, becoming involved in a commercial trucking, custom harvesting and planting business with his father, Ted.

“We were able to make our first land purchase of five quarters in 1999,” Compton says. “It was a big risk, but we thought that if we were going to continue farming, we needed to own some land.” Compton’s operation has grown to about 9,000 acres located in Scott and Lane counties in west central Kansas. It includes 1,700 acres of irrigated ground and 6,300 of dryland. In addition to his own farmland, Compton manages land for 15 landlords.

“Our dryland farm is managed using a three-year rotation,” Compton explains, “beginning with winter wheat, followed by no-till corn or milo, and a third year of summer fallow.”

Their irrigated land, all under center pivots, is often split-cropped with half corn, followed by wheat. “Sunflower, cane hay or beans planted in the wheat stubble offer a low-cost, low-risk third cash crop,” Compton notes.

“While we may not follow with sunflower on every acre every year, we have incorporated sunflower in our crop rotations for about six years,” Compton says. “Planting sunflower behind irrigated wheat allows us to harvest three crops in two years under our pivots. As the input and labor costs are considerably less than other crop options, we can budget an extra $350 per acre of income. We think of sunflower as a bonus crop.”

Sunflower’s deep root system will penetrate the hardpan to mine nitrogen leached below the corn and wheat root zone, Compton points out. “Occasionally, we will add fertilizer; but more often than not, we just plant them in July and harvest them in October.

“Our sunflower is a low-tech crop.”

Compton makes good use of forward contracts to market his confection sunflower. “If the local market is not attractive, we will deliver them to Colby or Goodland processing facilities,” he indicates. “Using our own trucks gives us much greater marketing flexibility.”

The farm’s oil ’flowers are generally sold across the scale to the facility offering the most attractive spot cash bid.

Circle C Farm grain is delivered to a variety of market points. Wheat is primarily hauled to local elevators, while both high-moisture and dry corn and milo are often delivered under forward contracts to commercial cattle feed yards.

“We pay very close attention to the basis price,” Compton says. “The difference in basis between an elevator and a feedlot can be substantial. We have been able to capture sizable premiums by forward pricing our grain using a favorable off-season basis.”

A firm believer in the latest technology, Compton utilizes 2.5-acre grid maps over every acre of his managed farms. These maps are used to regulate precise fertilizer application through his planter and strip-till machine. The maps also are incorporated into combine yield monitors to show detailed production results.

“When it comes to technology, we put our money where our mouth is,” Compton stresses. “ ‘Bringing tomorrow’s technology to today’s farm’ is a phrase we use in our advertising and on our business cards.”

Steve Compton realizes that technology alone is not enough to ensure success. “Every good business must rely on its people,” he stresses.

With that in mind, Compton has surrounded himself with the right people — each with specialized skills. His father, Ted, is president of Circle C Farms Corporation and serves as operations manager. “Dad and I are partners and friends,” Compton states. “We work closely to organize and implement daily, monthly and long-term goals. He is literally my hands and feet.”

Servi-Tech crop specialist John Payne works closely with Compton. “We rely on John to give us fertility information, recommend the most cost-effective herbicides and insecticides, and suggest the most profitable breakeven costs of different crop choices,” Steve explains.

Stewart-Peterson broker Lawrence Kane is on speed dial to advise of marketing and hedging opportunities using a variety of futures and options strategies.

“Since I am stuck in this chair all day, my time is focused on shopping for the most competitive input prices and polling grain markets for their current bids,” Compton relates. “While I enjoy following K-State sports and some NASCAR competitors, the farm is my life. I spend all day at the office managing farm details; then I go home at night and read farm magazines.”

The work force at Circle C varies seasonally. Summer months add a half-dozen employees for the harvest crew. Compton sends his three combines and support equipment to customers in Texas and Oklahoma before returning home to cut Circle C wheat in Scott County. The machines’ final stop is the Idaho barley harvest before returning to Kansas to cut fall crops.

Each full-time employee has a specific area of responsibility. New Zealand native Rodney Su (Paco) has been with Compton for nine years. “I came to Kansas with some buddies to go on harvest,” Paco reflects. “After fall harvest, Steve offered me a year-round position. I liked the work and the people, so now I’m a ‘New Kansan,’ ” he quips. Paco manages, maintains and operates the John Deere sprayer, truck and equipment.

“Teresa Sowers is my multi-tasker,” Compton says. “She manages the office, compiles and maintains FSA and production records, provides a business plan and harvest results for each landlord, and is my #1 chauffeur.”

Greg Valdenar, Ross Rufenacht and Steve Bergen are all licensed CDL operators, tractor and combine drivers and full-time mechanics. “With this much equipment, something always needs fix’n”, drawls Tennessee native Valdenar.

“Another important part of my job is communicating with landlords,” Compton adds. “We advise each landlord of our planting intentions in the spring. After harvest, we compile detailed reports of yield and delivery points. As the landlords have a large investment in their land, they appreciate being in the information loop.

“We were fortunate to have good winter moisture and some timely summer rains, which produced excellent yields in 2007,” Compton concludes. “With current prices at all-time highs, it’s easy to be optimistic about the future of agriculture — even from a wheelchair.”

By Alfred Janssen III
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